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It's the last Final Exam for the High School Rock Off in Cleveland

Floor Band at High School Rock Off
Alicia Hoppes
One of the finalists in the final High School Rock Off is Floor Band, featuring Ella Choi, Jack Warner (left) and Miles Muller (not pictured). The trio formed late last year at Hudson High School around a shared appreciation of folk, country and Taylor Swift.

Garage bands have competed for fame, studio time and a little cash in the Tri-C High School Rock Off since 1997. It all comes to an end Saturday with 12 bands competing in the very last Rock Off finals — the Final Exam.

Barry Gabel, VP of marketing with Live Nation, has been there since the beginning. The Rock Off was started by Belkin Productions at the Odeon on the East Bank of the Flats in Cleveland to keep staff engaged during the dead of winter.

“It was really something that could… help us identify a bunch of young kids that we could use for a street team,” he said. “We figured that if anybody would like to be on stage at a pretty cool concert club, they probably would like to hand out a couple of fliers for some of our upcoming shows.”

Belkin later morphed into Live Nation and the Rock Off moved to the House of Blues. In 2014, it moved again to the Rock Hall.

Music industry pros got their start through the event, Gabel said. Rock Off alumni include guitarist Eric Potapenko, now with Adam Lambert, Sam Getz of Cleveland rock band Welshly Arms and local singer-songwriters Peter McPoland and Ray Flanagan.

“There’s so many people that I met that I ended up being in bands with, from other schools, in the Rock Off,” Flanagan said.

Gabel cited that camaraderie and cross-pollination between musicians as one of his favorite aspects of the event. Another is seeing kids come out of their shells and gain confidence by performing in the shadow of rock legends.

“That first performance at the Rock Hall is probably the most comfortable I've ever felt playing,” said Ella Choi, a Hudson High School senior who has played solo for years.

Last fall, she formed Floor Band with classmates Jack Warner and Miles Muller. The trio is in this Saturday’s finals.

“Just having them there with me made me feel so much more comfortable,” she said. “We don't want to get too caught up in all the stress.”

Winners this year will receive cash for themselves as well as their school music program. Every finalist also gets to professionally record a song at Tri-C’s studio.

“It was my first time recording with others,” she said. “It took us a few tries to get it because it's more daunting to have to wear the headphones. They had a divider between each one of us, but we were still in the same room.”

The results of recording will be online, with clips from all 12 bands in the final round. Thirty acts competed over several weekends.

Why is the Rock Off ending after 27 years? Gabel cited a decrease in the number of applicants, plus a desire at Live Nation to “do more with less.”

“Hopefully somebody will pick up the mantle and bring the phoenix up from the ashes and give high school kids that opportunity to get on stage and be fearless,” he said.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.